‘Stranger on the Run,’ Henry Fonda’s most obscure western

Sixty-two-year-old Henry Fonda, as an alcoholic drifter and one-time prisoner, in the 1967 NBC western “Stranger on the Run”
Sixty-two-year-old Henry Fonda, as an alcoholic drifter and one-time prisoner, in the 1967 NBC western “Stranger on the Run”
The face that embodied tortured conscience for nearly 50 years: Henry Fonda, as alcoholic drifter and one-time prisoner Ben Chamberlain, casts a distinctive right side profile in director Don Siegel’s little-seen western “Stranger on the Run,” distributed as an NBC-TV “Tuesday Night Movie” on October 31, 1967, and later shown in theaters internationally. Image Credit: Universal Television / Profiles in History [auction house]

It’s curiosity-piquing unraveling why Stranger on the Run, a made-for-TV western starring Henry Fonda, remains mired in oblivion despite the winning efforts of future Dirty Harry collaborators Don Siegel and Dean Riesner. Corralling a revered pedigree of Tinseltown veterans — Michael Parks, Sal Mineo, Dan Duryea, Anne Baxter, and sole surviving primary cast alum Michael Burns — the debut entry for NBC’s “Tuesday Night at the Movies” won its Halloween 1967 time slot, earned encouraging notices, and was eventually consumed by European moviegoers.

Set in 1885 in a fictional New Mexico railroad outpost, Death Dance at Banner, as it was originally called, finds Fonda as grizzled saddle tramp and one-time prisoner Ben Chamberlain. Caught stowing away in a boxcar as the theme song performed by Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson ambles to a close [you can read his exclusive remembrance here], the laconic Chamberlain takes a job assisting a general store proprietor. He’s really in town because he promised a friend he’d give a message to his saloon-working sister [Madlyn Rhue], whose penchant for harboring secrets has caused anxiety among certain influential townsmen. Facing a wall of silence, through perseverance Chamberlain discovers her rundown residence — and lifeless body. Hotly pursued by corrupt railroad chief deputy Parks’ posse, the innocent drifter is apprehended. In a nod to The Most Dangerous Game [subsequent movies like Yul Brynner’s Westworld and the politically charged horror of Hilary Swank’s The Hunt also borrowed liberally from the Roaring Twenties short story], Chamberlain is set free in the desert with a horse, water canteen, and an hour’s head start.

With another 15 years destined in the limelight, Chamberlain is an atypical, pathetic role for the 62-year-old Fonda in lieu of all the authority figures grappling with far-reaching decisions that he so handily rendered. Of course, it’s nowhere as atypical as Fonda’s most shocking part in an undisputed classic — blue-eyed calculating murderer Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. Stranger on the Run completes a 20-year trilogy exploring unjustly accused men that ignited with the Nebraska-raised actor rendering Ford’s The Fugitive [1947] and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man [1956]. A parallel can also be drawn to 12 Angry Men, where Fonda is the sole voice of dissension among jurors convinced that a young Puerto Rican is guilty of fatally stabbing his father. Not coincidentally, that epic screenplay was penned by Reginald Rose, credited for the original story of Stranger on the Run that Riesner meticulously fleshed out.

Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart author Mike Peros succinctly summarizes Stranger on the Run as “combining traditional Western action with contemporary psychological examination.” Duryea repeatedly steals scenes as over the hill deputy O.E. Hotchkiss, acclimating himself to failing eyesight. Peros opined that the suspenseful sagebrush saga deserved to be Duryea’s final film instead of the schlocky Bamboo Saucer, actually filmed earlier but held up for distribution while the quintessential sniveling outlaw lay dying of pancreatic cancer.

Of Fonda’s 96 movies stretching between 1935’s The Farmer Takes a Wife and 1981’s Summer Solstice, 22 were westerns. That doesn’t take into account The Deputy, an inconsequential NBC 30-minute western series broadcast from 1959 to 1961 that Fonda accepted strictly for the paycheck. There would have been more celluloid incidents if Fonda had not flexed his creative muscles in the theater [e.g. three years as the titular character of Mister Roberts, one year defending The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial].

Stranger on the Run was Fonda’s third of four westerns in a row and the best of the bunch. His most recent moneymaker had been the World War II epic Battle of the Bulge two years previously — an eternity in a business focused on the latest trend. Audiences were experiencing oater fatigue unless the genre’s traditional white versus black hat parameters were significantly reimagined [e.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch], or you were the unstoppable John Wayne or new kid in town Clint Eastwood.

Fonda was on the precipice of one of his busiest, artistically rewarding seasons in ages. Madigan, Yours, Mine, and Ours, The Boston Strangler, and Once Upon a Time in the West were all on the horizon. The Lucille Ball comedy teaming scored with moviegoers, while Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western broke box office records in France [it unexpectedly bombed in Fonda’s native country]. Privately, the future On Golden Pond Oscar recipient’s fifth marriage to American Airlines stewardess and part-time model Shirlee Adams was built to last, although his reservations about daughter Jane and son Peter’s counterculture alliance intensified.

Stranger on the Run served as Siegel’s final television foray. The former noir helmer reunited with Fonda for his next project — Madigan — a gritty, NYC-based detective drama right at home among his masculine-focused wheelhouse. Five collaborations alongside directorial apprentice Clint Eastwood over the ensuing decade sealed Siegel’s auteur status — Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Dirty Harry, The Beguiled, and Escape from Alcatraz. And he wrung an Oscar-worthy performance out of John Wayne in The Shootist — the Duke’s final movie shamefully languished at the box office. Marc Svetov contributed a piece to the Noir City Sentinel that persuasively argued, “In Siegel’s films, there are few loose ends…he preferred stories that were direct, lithe, and hardboiled, yet not tough to the point of being inhumane, and he disliked superfluous talk.”

Riesner penned five scripts of Eastwood’s break-out series Rawhide between 1963 and 1964, including “Incident of the Pale Rider.” Coogan’s Bluff was Eastwood’s second American film following his Leone spaghetti western trilogy, and Riesner was hired. Their 20-year partnership yielded Play Misty for Me, Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter, The Enforcer, and Sudden Impact. Siegel retained Riesner for 1973’s Charley Varrick. If you can envision exasperated grouch Walter Matthau as a struggling crop duster who robs a bank containing Mafia money, you‘re ready for Charley Varrick.

Encore screenings of Stranger on the Run occurred occasionally in the late ’70s. The dodgy JTC Video retitled the western as Lonesome Gun, perhaps to avoid copyright claims, and issued a VHS in 1993. Universal greenlit a DVD for French consumption, but apparently territorial rights and limited demand have hindered the film’s availability on any official format in the USA. Compared to the prolific Warner Archive, which has delivered over 4,000 rare, manufactured-on-demand movies in the past decade, the Universal Vault Series lacks strategic branding. No airings have materialized on suitable satellite/cable channels like Encore Westerns or INSP. Streaming is possible on Vimeo and Dailymotion thanks to conscientious uploaders, or simply scroll below to watch. Stranger on the Run deserves exhumation.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2020. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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